Women Overcoming the Boundaries: Hildegard of Bingen’s Mystical Representation of the Porous Womb

Minji Lee, Department of Religion

In many cultures, women were often located in a liminal states of humanness. Women were human beings but they were understood as an inferior version of men. Medieval Western culture understood women as better than animals and as less than men,.. The 12th -century visionary, Hildegard of Bingen, represented women as crossing and even overcoming boundaries by giving birth. More specifically Hildegard’s feminine representation of the Church (Ecclesia) offered purgation of souls through mystical childbirth in the first of Hildegard’s trilogy of visionary works, the Scivias (“Know the Ways”). Hildegard, then, represented women’s bodies as permeable in a positive way.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German nun. She was one of few exceptional women who was educated enough to teach and to write, overcoming the limitations on women typical of her time. Hildegard recorded mystical experiences in her visionary trilogy, starting with her most famous first theological book Scivias and continuing through the Book of Life’s Merits, and Book of Divine Works. Hildegard’s theology was not unconventional, but her feminine symbolism is distinctive.

Conventional theology represented the Virgin Mary as a key figure in transitions for human souls: through her, and more specifically through her womb, God descended to earth to enable the drawing upward of other souls to heaven. Typically, however, Mary’s body was represented as mystically sealed; how God entered and exited was a mystery. Honorius of Autun, Hildegard’s contemporary, praised the sealed nature of Mary’s body in his book “Seal of the Blessed Mary,” a commentary on the Song of Songs. He repeatedly refers to the mother of god as “closed” in the sense that she was intact even after having given birth to Jesus. Her sealed body body was not contaminated by sexual activity.. In this reading, Mary’s intact body represented how the orthodox church remained unified.

By contrast, Hildegard used allegories showing the Church as a feminine body that is porous and permeable. In vision three of the Scivias, Hildegard adduced her mystical experience to witness Ecclesia in a womanly form, representing the womb’s power to enable the boundary crossing necessary to salvation of souls. An image shows the lower half of Ecclesia perforated with many holes or windows, showing black souls inside; in the upper part of the image, her mouth is open allowing emission of the souls, now shown as white, signifying cleanliness. The text describes how Ecclesia’s womb opened its boundaries to souls so that they could enter; Ecclesia could then purge and save them, absorbing the stained souls through the foraminate womb, cleansing them through her body, and emitting them in a reverse birth through her mouth. This vision, Hildegard explains, signifies the sacraments of the Church.

In contrast to canonical medieval theological and medical views which identified women’s bodies as inferior, dangerous, and even monstrous, Hildergard’s understanding of women’s bodies showed an appreciation of their porosity. This vision of Ecclesia represents Hildegard’s own view that just as women purged their own bodies in menstruation, so also souls could be purged– and just as they could give new life to people in childbirth, so also souls could be given new life. For Hildegard, the female body had great power because it enabled transitions both between the body and the world and between earth and heaven. In this way, Hildegard of Bingen, transformed women’s physical vulnerability into spiritual strength

Hildegard’s visions and interpretations of Ecclesia twist the traditional image of women in woman-empowering ways. In medieval Christianity, women were often referred to as “fragile vessels” due to their perceived physical and spiritual weaknesses. Physiologically, woman’s womb could be filled by a man’s member, semen, fetus, and baby, all of which were normally considered corruptive. Spiritually, women’s body could be possessed by holy or evil spirits. Hildegard looked at the opposite aspect: the porosity of women’s bodies enabled the purgation through menstruation; what entered the female body could also easily exit. She took her mystical vision as signifying that women’s physical and spiritual permeability participated in the holy and salvific process of the dispensation. In the Scivias, women’s porous bodies become the space connecting God and the human – a move that makes femininity itself authoritative than usual. biographers, extended this symbolism to her own life and work: they represented Hildegard as a vessel taking God’s words into herself and delivering them to people through teaching and writing.

Hildegard’s distinctive use of female bodies in her theology arguably contributed to the ways she herself was able to appear as a true messenger of God in her writings. Certainly she crossed normative social and doctrinal boundaries imposed on women that prevented them from teaching and preaching. Her depiction of women’s positive porosity in her mystical writings showed how the women’s permeable bodies could be seen as central to medieval theology.